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He was the brother they called Peabrain.
I never knew his real name.
So that's all I ever called him, too.
Though I never once stopped to think what I was saying about him by doing that. Or how it might make him feel. I only knew that's what he answered to. So that's the name that I, like everybody else, used.
Peabrain had a sister. She was...who? Some name, solid, that was like a stone dropping when you pronounced it. She regularly chewed paint off pencils. Neatly, leaving them the color of their wood.
Every Sunday night, their mother would drink a single beer. She sprinkled salt into it after filling her glass. I'd never seen that before. Not the salt. But a woman, with a beer.
The brand name on the label, the shape of the glass, the hand she held it in, everything would come to me in time. All I had to do was think hard. And that's what I was doing right then, with great intent. Thinking, thinking, rooting around the long sealed-up cartons in my brain, bringing into light harmless memories from the old days here, thoughts I'd stored from that time. Something, anything, other than why I really was back and what that meant. Something other than what this place once was for me -- the setting of almost an entire childhood of summers so pleasant and cheerful they could have doubled as coloring book illustrations. Something other than what the farm was for me the final season I lived here, a lesson as black and white as the dictionary page you consult because you need the definition of a puzzling word.
What I had been trying to define in that summer of 1976 was the adult universe, where I, then about to turn 18, swiftly was headed, baggage packed for me, ticket purchased, brochures offered but merely glanced at because the destination seemed too unbelievable to be my own. The grown-up land might as well have been India, with its jarring class levels and mysterious religions and exotic garb. Countless subtle languages, strange foods, extreme climates, customs you wouldn't finally learn until after you'd broken every one of the rules. I inched forward without a map. Then came the summer of Lucy Dragon. Though my very age, she already had visited places light years ahead, landing at the farm for a breather, only to become my erstwhile guide into reality. Most people can call up merely the most general, fuzzy memories of leaving their innocence and getting the first real idea of what it would mean to have eyes open to the way things really are in life. This place, this farm -- mostly this worn circle of earth where she and I spent so many hours -- I actually could put my finger on and point to and say right here is where I caught on to the idea of the bigger world. Right here also is where I was broadsided by it for the first time, a slam I am embarrassed to confide I can feel keenly even more than two decades later, courtesy of the boy I believed to be the love of my life, and the girl I was hoping would be the friend of my dreams. Good and bad, it happened right here on the ground on which I once again stand. All this because Lucy Dragon came to stay in the nice clean room we had for rent.
The ponies were the ones who witnessed it all. Watching then just as they were watching me on my first day back. Without a look at them, I couldn't help but know this. Their stares pressed into me, their eyes the color of rich earth and as big as the oval you make when you join your thumb and first finger together to signal that everything is okay. In a wasted effort, I tried to pretend they really weren't only a couple feet away as I started the walk from the barn down to the big sign at the roadside, carrying in my left hand the plain piece of cedar shingle onto which I had written the single word.
With every step, each time I swung that arm forward, a cold wave of general sadness broke over me. Then followed a pail full of guilt, right in the face. I knew well that my uncle would have spent all morning in his shop, firing up his fussed-over collection of power tools to perfect the look of the word I was delivering. He would have taken a router or some other kind of loud machine to carve the letters. He would have added a fancy little scalloped border. There would have been a coat of milky white primer. Then, after the proper amount of drying time, a small sharp-angled brush would have been dipped into a can of bright orangey red paint so that anybody, no matter their level of eyesight, could easily and without squinting read this from well down the road. I never have had any of my uncle's creativity, and right then it was tough to drum up anything coming close to resembling his enthusiasm for such work. So all I'd done was take a laundry marker to the piece of wood I'd found in a box of scrap beneath the workbench, and I'd started and finished the job in the short few minutes it took for the hose to top off the water trough.
My uncle never would have stood for displaying these few inches of unadorned wood anywhere on his property -- let alone out in the front yard for both passing strangers and lifelong friends to view. But, suddenly, my uncle wasn't standing at all. And because he wasn't, just as suddenly, there I was, three thousand miles from my home, to begin the end. To put his place to rest. To clean out, wash up, sort out, pack up, give back, give away, sell off, ship off, move out, and move along everything and everyone for which and for whom these rolling 152 acres were home. The little white farmhouse with the neat horseshoe shapes cut into the many pairs of green shutters. The hunkering barn, color of fresh blood. The thirty-eight Rhode Island Reds worrying beneath their slanted roof. The couple of rabbits that followed on your heels if you allowed them loose from the pen. The four quick goats named for the Evangelists. And the six ponies who for so long had made this address some degree of what you actually might consider a place of interest.
After this summer, so much of what was right in front of me on this day of my return would be gone. Relocated somewhere new and, as of right now, unknown. And the first step in all this was for me to head down to the sign and nail my square of wood over the number forty-four. Right in the middle of the line that tells everybody exactly how many consecutive summers the Happy Trails Pony Ring has been in operation. How many seasons in a row, it has without fail been offering any kid with enough coins five slow and dream-filled trips around the perfect circle etched beneath the sugar maples.
I stuck my hand in my jacket pocket and a fingertip found for me the point of the wide-headed silver nail I'd taken from a coffee can on the workbench. I pounded it in the proper place and then stood back to take in how three whacks of the hammer were all that was needed to announce the great chore I'd been asked to perform. To turn last year's message -- "Our 44th Season" -- into "Our FINAL Season." With my version of handiwork, a thick, wavering black line under the length of the middle word.
That's when I finally turned and brought myself to really look at the ponies for the first time since being delivered up the driveway an hour earlier. For the first time since I was last here, twenty-two years ago. And they were staring, as usual, like no time at all had passed, all six heads over the fence, lined up side by side in the same order they'd always been: Star. Pan. Tony. Princess. Zoey. Chester. I'd always thought they were the smartest animals ever born. But as far as I knew, they were unable to read. And, enviably more often than not, their awareness and concern was limited to the very moment happening right now.
Which is an end, but also must be given some credit for being a start. Of simple-sounding things like a summer, and a request to be fulfilled. Of a real breeze, too, one that began waving up across the back field while I was down at the sign, and that now ruffles the new leaves overhead, an entrancing sound you could tape and sell to be played on the stereo at day spas. It moves around to push the tail of the copper rooster posing on the barn cupola, and to sway the triangle that hangs from the fence and calls the ponies in from the farthest edge of the field at night. The air is circling, a piece of hay scuttles past on the ground, followed by the purply feather of a jay. It's moving my hair, now free from behind my ears and sliding across my eyes. All I can do is listen. To the whoosh of the breeze and the souvenirs it carries past me -- my uncle's whistling, and my aunt's laughing, and the ponies saying the only word ponies are able to. I enjoy all of this fully, as you do the last bits of a dream when it gets to the point where you are waking and you realize what's happening is not real life, yet it's still very nice and good so why not get every moment out of it that you can. One more thing I haven't heard for a lifetime: Frankie's voice saying he loves me loves me loves me. I'm standing in the barnyard blinded by the sweetness in all this and that's when the wind kicks up and -- bam! -- the door of the nice clean room for rent flies open and there is Lucy, who took what she did and ran away from us all, but who never really left me.
I shove the hair from my eyes and I shake the last thought out like sea water sloshing in the middle of my head. "What was that?" But the wind is gone and there's nobody left to ask. Except the six of them there at the fence.
Executrix, I was to be.
Originally, I was to have been called owner.
"The farm will go to you," Pal repeated throughout my childhood, like mortality was something a kid would want to dwell on. But he'd made the right choice. I knew the place as well as they did. From my eighth year through my eighteenth, I spent every summer there. I don't say that I simply stayed there, because I did a lot more than just sleep in the little spare room that was straight ahead as you cleared the top step onto the second floor of the farmhouse. I lived there as much as did Victory, in the room to the right of mine, and Pal, in the one to the left, joining them in the cycle of the place, the working before light that is more than a butter-commercial cliché. I was far from a guest who needed to be entertained or who scuffed around bored, having to be given a constant handful of suggestions for ways to spend all her free time. I was there to help out. To work. To feed and groom and tack the ponies, then to head back to the barn to rake and shovel, sweep and pour and fill, and to interrupt any of that only when a car pulled up the drive and its doors flew open and a stream of kids ran to the ring, climbing onto the fence rails and pointing and yelling and attempting a pat. To take their money and settle them on and give them their five times around, then to head back to my chores until somebody else happened by. That was my day, always ending with a ride into the fields, a two-helping supper, a warm bath in the short deep tub, and up to bed usually even without a lengthy look at TV. Those three months of the year, I grew taller, tanned, and got from the sun the kind of streaky golden highlights in my hair that my mother's girlfriends paid good money to have professionally applied. It was as if the farm were one big vitamin pill. That's what Pal, flexing a bicep, liked to tell me.
But that was before the summer of Lucy Dragon. After that, I remained away, my choice of school and job taking me far from Massachusetts, and my career in education earning me nowhere near the income required for the upkeep and taxes on a place that size. The farm was a sentimental luxury I wouldn't be able to afford until I hit the big-bucks state lottery, which there was little chance of because, not liking to waste a dollar, I never bothered to play. The same way I never bothered to visit. Not once after that last summer, after the disappointing post-dentist-visit taste left in my heart regarding the place I'd long considered my true home. After that summer, I made up -- or conveniently actually had -- one excuse after another as to why I couldn't come out for a stay: Heartbreak. School. Heartbreak. Love. Heartbreak. Motherhood. On and on. And all the many obligations that each one stacked on my head. The string of reasons I never could fly east eventually got so long that my aunt and uncle stopped raising the topic, which was a relief.
My uncle's whole, complete name -- Pawel -- was what they gave when they phoned me from Mary Lane, the hospital to which he'd been brought.
"I'm calling on behalf of Pawel Panek," said a nurse who didn't identify herself personally, just rushed on to say that I was the family contact listed on Mr. Panek's wallet identification card, even though I was out of state, and, hey, where is the 206 area code anyway?
Seattle, I said as slowly as if the word had forty-five syllables, and she informed me, "There's been an emergency."
When I arrived there the next day, red-eyed from my first red-eye flight, my uncle was left to bits of whisperings. A monster had been growing in his brain for who knew how long, and the morning before it had flattened him to the kitchen floor linoleum, where he was discovered by farmhand Jerzy there for chores. Once located, the thing had been determined too tricky to remove, especially from the head of someone elderly. When my uncle's words came, they were little and soft, and I had to stay close to make them out. My ear was almost on his lips when I made out the message: "It's time. Close the farm." I almost asked him to repeat this, but what he'd said sunk in. Of course I replied, "Nonsense, you'll be back there soon." But however I tried to puff up the words, they came out steamrollered. Both of us knew better. "Nonsense, you," my uncle said back. "Close. End. Get rid -- everything." There was a space here, and I studied the weave in the flimsy ecru blanket. He jarred me, with this: "But run the ring. One more season." Machines on either side of the bed purred and clicked. "Please?" Pal asked. The man in the next bed, about ninety years old, screamed for his mother. My uncle finished. "Nice round number before you take the sign down."
Twenty-two years after last doing so, I am taking in the sound of it all. The snap of the crossties. The creak of the leather as you secure the saddle, bringing the strap up into the metal ring, through and down to the right, around to the left, back through the ring and down behind the crossover of leather you've already made. Pulling it tight. Sort of like how you tie a man's tie, as my uncle instructed back when he, rather than I, was the one closing the gate now that the six are tacked and waiting in the ring.
All that is why I now sit there, hand curled around the whip, mind wrapping around the past. I look to the left, to the right. There are no cars. No sounds. Nobody. Nothing. I look down at the sign. I look over at the ponies. I am back here. They are here, as they always have been. We are open for business. All of us, ready for the first of the final trips around the world. Wherever they might take us along the way.
Copyright © 2001 by Suzanne Strempek Shea